Few have heard of Rong Hong, the first Chinese person ever to graduate from college, and a member of the Yale Class of 1854. For Chinese students like me, however, Hong’s story is a perfect reminder of how my education should be used.
Though Hong could have enjoyed the riches of America after his graduation, he instead worked to make education accessible to more people. He believed Chinese youth should have the opportunity to study in America. By bringing the skills they acquired back to China, they could help their home country.
But Hong lived in a society that lacked openness. To accomplish his goal, he battled for nearly 20 years. Before the first group of Chinese youngsters could set out for the East Coast, Hong petitioned his government and searched for sponsors. Eventually, Hong was able to send many youth to study at prestigious universities, including Yale. These children provided relief to a Chinese society drowning in crises.
I thought of Hong’s example when I went to visit my grandmother earlier this year. Though I only am able to see her twice a year, each visit brings a surprise. This time, I brought with me a piece of paper that would become the newest edition to her collection of family heirlooms. Before she stored the one-page treasure, she was eager to know what the letter said. English was a language she never had the chance to learn.
As I translated my acceptance letter for her, I battled changes in word order, searching for the precise words. For the first time, I was struck by the letter.
The first time I had read it, I had seen it as a flattering recognition of my achievements — even though, as a senior in high school, what I was able to do was actually quite limited. The things I was expected to do at Yale — enlarge my horizons, develop my abilities and expand my opportunities — were high expectations, and I was unsure if I could meet them.
Grandma listened, taking notes. She wrote down key words in her exquisite calligraphy, and then stopped for a moment. “I could never have had the wisdom to say those things,” she said, “But you are going to achieve all of them.”
My grandmother has been a dedicated educator all her life. All four of my grandparents were once school principals and teachers. They had humble upbringings amid perilous surroundings. Though they thrived in their schools and their workplaces, a lack of resources and social upheaval — especially the physical suffering and grave losses of faith that were the Cultural Revolution — hindered their dreams. They dreamed big dreams, hoping to educate themselves and their society.
It’s no wonder, then, that my grandmother calls my Yale acceptance “enlightening the glory of ancestors,” as the Chinese saying she’s referencing goes. For us, it’s not just a cliché. The dreams of each generation in my family — dreams to pursue an education in spite of hard circumstances — culminated in my admission to Yale. Just as the legacy of Rong Hong had a ripple effect throughout Chinese society, so too have the efforts of my grandparents influenced my own life.
American culture values individuality. Here, it’s easy to neglect the responsibility that people with a good education should have to others. This is the responsibility that once motivated Rong Hong and my grandparents. Today, it’s a tradition worth following. When I traveled two hours from Beijing to teach Chinese children in the countryside, Yale became unexplainable. Though the children knew places called colleges existed, few would ever make it to high school. Many even drop out of middle school, even though that’s part of their compulsory education in China. How could I explain Yale to children with so much desire to advance their lives, but so little chance of getting there?
I still cannot find ways to explain Yale to them; I can only try to send them a postcard. But even if I cannot find the exact words to translate the value of my education, I can still do much to help. It’s time to pay the gifts of Rong Hong, and the gifts of my grandparents, forward. It’s time to make a difference beyond the world of my own.
Yifu Dong is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.